The Sounds of Silents

On February 15 I accompanied Champagne, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, at the Detroit Film Theater, so it might be a good time to try to set down the experience of what it’s like to accompany a silent picture while the impressions are fresh.

But first, here’s a giant oversimplification. If you start at middle C on the piano and count up the white and black keys until you reach the next C, you’ll find that there are 12 notes until the pattern of notes repeats. It’s not that it’s so hard to memorize 12 notes. It’s a matter of: is the note you want high, middle, or low; how fast is it traveling to the next note; what other notes are occurring at the same time, and how fast are the notes moving, and why? Is it a moment that’s totally improvised, or is it an actual song or piece? The experience morphs from one thing to the next.

When the experience is up and running, it’s mostly two things: strangely private and also self-conscious. Depending on where the piano is situated, once the lights go off, it’s just me and the movie. At the NCMA it’s more continuously self-conscious because the piano is on stage with the movie. At other venues the piano may be off to one side, or down in an orchestra pit, so that even though I can always be seen by the audience when they choose, the direction of my attention to the screen can exclude my perceiving the audience for a time after the start, and thus I experience the strange privacy in which I’m “locked in” to what a picture is. In some cases this can go on for practically the whole film. Yet I can “feel” and hear the audience.

It’s inevitable when playing for a picture to play “clinkers,” and I wonder if anyone recalls them or whether they just become absorbed and dismissed due to the duration. It’s most important for me to be careful near a picture’s ending, and so it becomes the area of greatest risk. Yet being reckless when playing the piano is a prime ingredient for me. It’s the “mystery note” that I’m after; the weird confluence of sound and events that I’m reaching for to hit the mark that’s so elusive. Naturally, the better the picture, the better the chance.

With a classic comedy, it’s so exhilarating to fly along on the big laughs. I love that! There’s nothing better than the big laughs, which seem never to fail in the great comedies.

I’ll always remember the “gasp” of the audience near the end of Pandora’s Box at Raleigh’s Rialto Theater, when Jack the Ripper drops his knife on the steps leading up to Louise Brooks’s attic hovel; the incredible rush of cheering near the end of The Man Who Laughs in 2009 at the NCMA; the amazing roars of laughter during the two shows of The General at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines—and I could go on and on. But most of all, since I love playing for the creative insanity of silent comedy, I’m looking forward to an exciting new experience coming up soon at the NCMA.

Guest blogger David Drazin is a pianist and composer who has acquired a national reputation for his piano improvisations accompanying silent films. He is a regular at the NCMA and on March 7 will accompany Two Tars and Three Ages in the Museum Auditorium.

I Remember Fireflies

We’ve had a seriously cold winter here—and nothing makes me yearn for summer weather more than that! Summertime brings many joys—fresh berries, long days, beach-perfect sunshine. For me, a transplanted West Coaster, there is one element of summer that never ceases to provide intense fascination and childlike glee: seeing fireflies (or lightning bugs, if you’re so inclined). Though my adult brain understands the scientific basis for their bioluminescence, I still consider them special—perhaps magical. I look forward to seeing them every year. In the meantime, I can enjoy them now—in winter!—in the Museum Park.

Houston-based artist Allison Hunter enjoys similar positive emotions toward fireflies, though hers are based in childhood memories. She recalls beach vacations spent watching fireflies as they soared around the sand dunes. “I remember fireflies lighting our path to the seawall at night. Their glowing nature was magical by itself, but combined with our reverie, the fireflies seemed fairylike.” These memories created a sense of longing in Hunter, who, as a Houstonite, rarely sees fireflies now. The urban sprawl and light pollution of large cities foils sightings of such creatures. Is it because of a depletion of habitat? Or is it that the city is too suffused with light to properly see them? Is it a combination?

Hunter’s new video installation in the Museum Park, I Remember Fireflies, reimagines the insects in an ideal environment—a safe habitat where they are able to go through their life cycles in peace. Hunter took a hands-on approach to the creation of her work, filming her “fireflies”—which are created with clay and jeweler’s wire—in stop-motion. The video installation, set inside a birdhouse situated with a glass peephole, seems familiar, yet strange. The video is set to the tune of Mildred Bailey’s 1940s standard “At Sundown.”

The dark environment and our human size (particularly in relation to the tiny insects) further obscure the creatures, a fact that is made more interesting given that we aren’t seeing actual, living fireflies. “The human tries to see but cannot see what is going on inside,” Hunter says. “The intimate life of insects remains a mystery.” And this mysterious nature is the essence of Hunter’s work. In sheltering and re-creating them to her own specifications, Hunter allows her fireflies to come to life in a safe way—anywhere and anytime, in any season and under any weather conditions. So at the NCMA, fireflies are not just for summer—now, they’ll be available for viewing all year round.

Photo caption: Allison Hunter, I Remember Fireflies, 2012, stop-motion animation video with sound,  mini-video projector, speaker, painted wood, clay and wire figures, LED lights, wire mesh, glass, dried leaves, and rear-screen projection material, Courtesy of the artist

Three New Judaic Acquisitions

In previous posts I reported on the Museum’s success at last April’s auction of the Steinhardt Judaica Collection. I then wrote about one of the three pieces acquired in that sale. The other two pieces deserve equal attention.

The first is an unusually large, elegantly proportioned and finely wrought silver filigree Spice Container in the form of a tower. Used in the Havdalah (or Separation) ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath, spice containers are among the most ubiquitous of Jewish ceremonial objects. Filled with sweet herbs and spices such as cloves, they are sniffed during the ritual, though like many Jewish traditions, the reason for this is debated. One commonly repeated explanation is that smelling the spices expresses the hope that the sweetness of the Sabbath might carry through the week to come. However, our curatorial consultant Gabriel Goldstein notes an alternative theory: that the fragrant spices “are akin to smelling salts used to invigorate the individual, as at the moment of Havdalah there is a loss of a special extra soul or spirit that inhabits the body during the Sabbath.” Whatever the reason for its use, the spice container traditionally has been an essential part of the Jewish home. Unconstrained by religious law, artisans have interpreted spice containers in a wide variety of fanciful forms.

This spice container conforms to a traditional type of filigreed tower thought to have originated in the German states in the early 17th century and little changed in basic design over the next 300 years. It is thus difficult to accurately date these pieces or to identify their place of origin. At present all that can be said about this particular example is that its high degree of craftsmanship argues for an 18th- or early 19th-century date, and that it was likely made in Poland. Filigree is a metalsmithing technique using wire to create shapes and forms of often dazzling complexity. A special feature of this piece is the selective use of gilding to accent the architecture of the tower. Its acquisition was made possible by Elaine Sandman of Raleigh, who gave it in memory of her parents, Louis and Ethel Elden.

The last acquisition from the Steinhardt sale is a magnificent, over-the-top, gilded silver Torah Shield from 18th-century Germany. Read More »

A Hair-Raising Experience

Despite the frightful sound of this article’s title, the conservation treatment of the NCMA’s Portrait of Sir John Scott, which I finished in November, went quite smoothly. The painting is now refreshed and as near to its former glory as possible. But as frequently happens during a full restoration, little details of the original painting were uncovered that supply interesting insight—in this case, on the intriguing human infatuation with hair.

The conservation treatment removed centuries of accumulated dust and grime as well as layers of old varnish and previous restoration. Cleaning was followed by the application of new varnish and judicious retouching to cover up small paint losses and minor damage. Even the smallest original brushstroke and surviving nuance has become visible again: the rich fabric of the gold and black garments, the luster of the unusual wood-grain floor, the rosy flesh tones, and the sparkle in Sir John’s eyes.

Read More »

Film Still in Focus at NCMA

On the Town, (1949) Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett. (98 min.)

This month I began my 14th year as the NCMA’s film curator. Unlike at other Triangle venues, my programming choices continue to be on film, not digital. Because the studios are strictly limiting access to titles on celluloid, every nearby non-multiplex screen—the Rialto, the Colony, the Carolina Theatre, the Chelsea—has had to convert (at a cost of $50,000 per screen or more) or die.

The Museum has been able to continue as the region’s only all-analog venue, thanks to two 1940s-era projectors that allow us access to studio and archive vintage prints that can only be screened with an honest-to-goodness projectionist (in our case, the peerless Doug Vuncannon, or one of his associates, Kevin Porter and Tina Efird) noting the change-over marks at the corner of the screen and switching seamlessly from one projector to the other. Film archives do not permit their prints to be cut and spliced together into large reels, as theaters without the luxury of a projectionist in the booth must do.  So while some theaters continue to show 35 mm, for example the Colony and the Carolina, they have access only to repertory prints, which can be cut and spliced.  Only the NCMA has the dual projector system that allows us to show archive prints.

Why does this matter? As with any art form, it is a matter of aesthetics. Audiophiles prefer the sound of vinyl to CDs. Lovers of the painted canvas do not think that even the most expensive printed reproduction compares to the original. For me, a film image on the screen is deeper, richer, with the slight flicker as cinema’s heartbeat. I still feel a brief moment of disappointment when the flat, bright digital image flashes on the screen of a commercial theater.

Digital restorations are becoming the norm for even classic films, and some viewers relish a crisp new print without the dust and scratches of celluloid. The sensitivity of the technicians performing this digital magic is crucial, though. The Carolina Theatre recently showed a series of digitally restored James Bond films, the tattered repertory prints having been permanently retired. Some may have marveled at the crisp new image. I, however, could have done without the glorious restoration of the glued edge of Sean Connery’s toupee.

This season we add a new archive to those institutions willing to lend us their valuable prints. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be sending us a print of On the Town. To qualify for this honor, we had to fill out an extensive venue report on the condition of our projection facilities. The endorsement of the other archives from which we borrow—the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film Archive, the Museum of Modern Art Film Archive, the archive at the UNC School of the Arts, and various studio archives—was crucial. Being blacklisted by one venue for mishandling a print results in all the archives withdrawing their borrowing consent.

The time is swiftly approaching when the NCMA will need to convert to digital to be able to show current films and new restorations of classic films. But, as long as it is still an option, the Museum will screen films on film, as they were photographed and as they were meant to be experienced.

Laura Boyes is the NCMA’s film curator and the personality behind

Arms for Art and Other Shenanigans

Earlier in the fall we removed from the American Galleries an imposing marble bust of John C. Calhoun. On my instructions Chief Conservator Bill Brown carefully removed a layer of acrylic paint, powdered talc, and wax that had been applied 20 years ago to mask unsightly yellowish stains covering much of the sculpture’s surface. Stripped of their makeup, the stern features of Calhoun are undeniably blemished. Rather than restore the cosmetic, we recently returned the bust to its pedestal in order to pose the question: what happened? How did this bust of pure white marble become so damaged?

The answer—only recently discovered—leads to an astonishing tale from the Civil War.

When Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina sat for this portrait bust in 1835, he was at the height of his power as the fiery “apostle of States’ Rights.” Following the convention of the time, sculptor Hiram Powers presents Calhoun in the timeless robes of a Roman statesman—in contrast to the drab contemporary garb of senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, standing at right. The artist modeled the portrait in clay, from which he made a mold and a plaster cast. The cast would serve as the template for future marble replicas.

By the late 1850s, Powers was long established in Florence, where his studio was a required destination for every American tourist. One visitor was Wharton Jackson Green, a North Carolina planter then on an extended honeymoon. In the studio Green spotted the plaster cast of the Calhoun bust. A devoted admirer of the late senator, Green immediately ordered a marble version for his plantation home in Warren County.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Green was hot to get into the fight and dreamed of being the colonel of his own regiment. However, to win the commission, he would need 600 rifles to equip his troops. To obtain the rifles from the state’s armory, he needed to curry favor with the governor. So Green hatched a scheme that centered on—I kid you not—the loudly publicized donation of the Calhoun bust to the State of North Carolina. As ludicrous as it sounds, Green’s plan worked. With fulsome oratory the bust of Calhoun was installed in the Senate Chamber of the State Capitol, and the next day a grateful governor authorized the release of the rifles. (Alas for Green, the governor died shortly afterward, and his successor gave the rifles to another aspiring colonel.)

Fast forward to April 1865. The Confederacy had collapsed. Union troops under Gen. Sherman had moved into Raleigh. During the first chaotic days of occupation, someone, almost certainly a rogue Union soldier, wandered through the ransacked Capitol and found opportunity to vent his anger. Not long afterward an army surgeon toured the building. As he walked into the Senate Chamber, something caught his eye:

On a shelf behind the speaker’s desk, was a marble bust, on the base of which in relief were the words “John C. Calhoun.” Poised on its crown was an inverted inkstand, whose contents had descended in copious streams over the face. The marks of a brush or cloth charged with the same fluid, had still more besmutted the features. Under the name, in pencil, was written this explanatory clause. “Yes, father of Secessionism.”

This final act of violation gives the story of this bust a peculiar symmetry. At the beginning of North Carolina’s rebellion, this marble bust of the “father of Secessionism” was received with high ceremony into the State Capitol. And at the very end of the rebellion, this same bust was just as ceremonially desecrated, the stern features of the implacable defender of slavery “besmutted”—and quite possibly deliberately blackfaced. Degrading a proud southerner to a minstrel character would have been an outrageously satisfying prank for a northern soldier exhausted by years of war.

Despite early efforts to clean away the ink, the effects of the long-ago vandalism remain. Instead of masking the damage, we have elected to reveal it in all its unsightly splendor, the better to tell a remarkable story. The full story of the Calhoun bust is told in the winter issue of Southern Cultures, available in many bookstores and news outlets and online, along with a related video.

Hiram Powers, John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), originally modeled 1835, carved 1859, marble, H. 29 ½ in., Presented to the State of North Carolina by Wharton Jackson Green, 1861; transferred to the North Carolina Museum of Art, 1956

Lieut. Col. Wharton J. Green, n.d., handcolored photograph (proof sheet from Clark, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861–’65, vol. 4, 1901, opp. 243). North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh (H.19XX.332.212).

J.A. Mowris, A History of the One Hundred and Seventeenth Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers, (Fourth Oneida), Hartford, 1866, 210. Full text.

Hanukkah Lamp

Just in time for Hanukkah … and Thanksgiving, we have installed in the Judaic Art Gallery a new and imposing acquisition: a 5-foot-high Standing Hanukkah Lamp for a Synagogue, made in Eastern Europe, probably western Ukraine or Poland. It replaces a similar lamp that has been loan to us from New York’s Jewish Museum.

Our lamp was acquired last April at the Sotheby’s auction of the celebrated Judaica Collection of Michael and Judy Steinhardt. As described in an earlier post, we were able to secure enough pledges of support from generous patrons to compete—and compete aggressively—for a number of the principal lots in the sale. In the end we were successful in acquiring three of the most important pieces in the Steinhardt collection, including this large Hanukkah lamp.

Before the Second World War, there were thousands of Jewish synagogues in cities, towns, and villages across Eastern Europe. A feature of many of these often-rustic houses of worship was a large Hanukkah lamp, placed near the front of the sanctuary, close to the Ark. Often made of copper alloy, such lamps typically took the distinctive form of a menorah, the branched candelabrum of the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem. (The Temple Menorah had six branches, but Hanukkah lamps add two more to accommodate the eight lights required for observance of the holiday, plus an additional server light.) The decorative branches of the lamp with alternating blossoms and buds follow the description of the biblical menorah given in Exodus 25:31-40. An interesting, nonbiblical, feature of this lamp are the brackets of stylized flowers that encircle the central shaft.

The base of our lamp has an inscription declaring that “this [lamp] is a donation of Reb Fievel and his wife Esther Yenma, daughter of Reb Zinvel, to the Holy Society Hesed ve-Ernet [5]531 (1771).” The crowned eagle surmounting the lamp is probably a later addition. These lamps often carried royal or imperial emblems as expressions of loyalty. This eagle, perhaps indicative of Polish or Prussian suzerainty, may have replaced an older emblem—a double-headed Russian or Austrian eagle?—when the allegiance of the community changed with the ever-shifting political boundaries. The eagle adds yet another story to a much-storied object.

These synagogue lamps were treasured by the local Jewish communities. Unfortunately, as potent symbols of the Jewish faith and identity, they were ready targets for the Nazis and their anti-Semitic allies. Few examples of this once-ubiquitous ceremonial object survived the war and Holocaust.

So, in this season of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, we have much to be thankful for.

John Coffey

Eastern European, Standing Hanukkah Lamp for a Synagogue, 18th–19th century, copper alloy: cast, machine-turned, engraved, punched, partly gilded (eagle), Gift of Thomas G. and Louise J. Coffey in memory of H. Arthur Sandman, 2013 (2013.4)

Best College Night Ever!

ECU performs "Go" inspired by the themes of speed and Porsche

ECU performs "Go" inspired by the themes of speed and Porsche

On Friday evening, October 25, the North Carolina Museum of Art had the immense pleasure of welcoming over 500 students to its third annual College Night. The schools participating included Appalachian State, Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham, Barton, Davidson, Duke, Elon, East Carolina, Fayetteville State, Johnston Community College, Liberty, Meredith, Mount Olive, N.C. Central, St. Augustine’s, Salem, Shaw, SCAD, UNC–Chapel Hill, UNC–Asheville, University of South Carolina, and Wake Technical Community College.

NCMA College Advisory Council

College Advisory Council

Inspired by Porsche by Design: Seducing Speed, the NCMA’s College Advisory Council worked for over six months to plan programs exploring the concept and medium of speed through art, video, and performance art. College Night 2013 celebrated the college exhibition Accelerate!, which includes work by students from colleges and university programs around the world. Buses and vans from across the state brought students to enjoy the free fry bar, blacklight photo booth, and special exhibitions while listening to a DJ set by SPCLGST and seeing performances by East Carolina University, Johnston Community College, North Carolina Central University, and N.C. State University.

NCCU Juke Squad performs at College Night

NCCU's Juke Squad performs at College Night

Because many college students are immersed in digital technology, we experimented with social media to engage visitor response in real time. Students used #fastART when tweeting or posting photographs before and during the event. These are collected through Storify, so you can see the event unfold through the eyes of the participants.

Thanks to each guest who attended this wonderful evening. We look forward to many more college events. In the meantime, enjoy these images from College Night 2013.

The Last Sleep

“Hello, Boils and Ghouls!” Those of you who tuned in to Tales from the Crypt in the late 1980s or early 1990s will remember the Crypt Keeper’s gruesome puns. Each episode began with a tracking shot through a decrepit Victorian mansion and down into the Crypt Keeper’s dungeon, where the cackling corpse would bring out objects connected with his scary stories. (Some episodes of the series were filmed in Britain, and “keepers,” by coincidence, are what curators are sometimes called in the United Kingdom.) For Halloween I began thinking about what kind of macabre melodrama the “keepers” here might present from our own crypt (I mean Museum storage).

George Cochran Lambdin’s The Last Sleep (circa 1858) has not been on view for many years because of condition issues, though it was widely admired in the 19th century. In it the artist stages a morbidly theatrical tale of woe. The large painting (nearly five feet wide) shows a distraught husband at the deathbed of his wife. Given the date, the young woman likely died from consumption or from complications associated with childbirth. The darkened chamber is carefully composed with objects emblematic of or associated with death: the white flowers by her bedside, the lone bloom that presumably fell from her dying hand onto the quilted coverlet, the ornamental statuette of an angel attached to the wall but seeming to hover protectively over the dead woman.

The Last Sleep was one of Lambdin’s great exhibition pictures and traveled extensively in the late 19th century, making appearances in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and New Haven. It was among the American paintings featured at 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris. When The Last Sleep made its first appearance at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1858, critics raved about the artist’s skill; the reviewer for The Crayon wrote, “For power of imagination, and as an example of true artistic genius … this picture is, in our opinion, unsurpassed by any work of the day.”

Themes of death or anticipated death were popular in Victorian art and literature, particularly when in service of some moral or spiritual end. Lambdin took care to emphasize sentiment in his picture, elevating it above assemblages of “material horrors” (as The Crayon noted when the picture was shown at the National Academy of Design the following year). After one early review suggested that death was not sufficiently “sanctified” in Lambdin’s picture, he changed the title from The Dead Wife to the more poetic The Last Sleep. His ploy was successful, and the notion of final slumber offered a conceptual balm to future critics.

In exhibitions the artist sometimes included the final stanza of Tennyson’s “The Deserted House” (1830) alongside the catalogue entry for The Last Sleep:

Life and thought
Here no longer dwell
But in a city glorious
A great and distant city they have bought
A mansion incorruptible.

(You can read the full poem here.)

Notably, Lambdin omitted the poem’s final line: “Would they could have stayed with us!”

Reviewers tended to focus on the feeling of loss in the picture, imagining the grief of the distraught husband. French critic Paul Mantz imagined the events leading up to this scene, noting that the anguished husband appears “almost dead himself.” The American writer Henry Tuckerman went further in projecting his own emotions: “The blinds are drawn; the fair youthful form lies stilled in death, and the husband, utterly crushed with grief, has flung himself across the bed. His face is not seen, but we can image its pallor, even as in fancy we can hear the choking sobs with which his bosom heaves.”

Few reviewers commented on the countenance of the dead wife, though to me she seems the star of this Victorian melodrama. Illuminated by sunlight from the outer room, her face is the focal point of our attention. Her husband appears almost as a shadow. And above, the ghostly angel hovers … and waits.

From the keepers here—have a happy Halloween!


George Cochran Lambdin, The Last Sleep, circa 1858. oil on canvas, 40 x 54 ¾ in., Gift of Peter A. Vogt

A New Frontier for Museums

This summer, Michelle Harrell (NCMA coordinator of teen and college programs) and I attended the Distance Learning Summit at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. We gathered with over 40 other art museum educators from across the country who are engaged specifically in distance learning programs such as videoconferencing with schools, professional development for teachers, or online courses like the ones we offer.

A colorful visual representation of our case study. Photo courtesy Emily Kotecki

The NCMA is currently the only museum in the country developing online courses in conjunction with a state virtual school. We offer semesterlong, for-credit high school courses using art in our collection as a catalyst for learning about topics such as game design, fashion, and videography. We have presented our project at state and national conferences, but until this summer never had the opportunity to meet others in this niche of art museum education.

Museums are creating distance learning programs as a way to reach more visitors and rethink the way people can interact with and learn from museum objects. At the conference we heard case studies from Google Art Project and smARThistory, as well as how the Metropolitan Museum of Art uses webinars and blended learning for teacher professional development. We listened to educators from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum discuss their videoconferencing programs; they use this technology to reach audiences around the globe! We also had an opportunity to share our program.

Sitting in a space with cathedral ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the manmade waterways of the Crystal Bridges Museum, we spent three intense days paving the path to the future for art museums and distance learning. We worked in small groups, engaged in large-group discussion, and even presented ideas through song and dance.

An immediate action step we decided on as a group was to share our findings and experiences with our institution (Check!). The next is for the Crystal Bridges Museum to host a series of Google Hangouts with participating museums before launching a Web site that would include research on art museum distance learning. That second step is around the corner as Michelle and I participate in a live webinar with six other institutions on Wednesday October 16. Be part of the conversation as we discuss our project and the future of distance learning in art museums. Moderators will be taking questions, so we can talk with those listening or watching from around the world.

—Emily Kotecki is associate coordinator of teen and college programs at the NCMA.